White Sands National Park

Glowing gypsum dunes in White Sands National Park, New Mexico.
Glowing gypsum dunes in White Sands National Park, New Mexico.

Story & photos by Jerry Ginsberg

As I am writing, the country and, indeed, most of the world is shutting down due to the spread of the novel corona virus. There is certainly a lot of information about it in the media so you don’t need me to add to it, especially since, when choosing a career long ago, medicine was not even close to the top of my list.  So even though I write regularly about photographing our national parks and other great travel destinations, it is apparent that park visitation and travel in general will be way down for a while to come.

I hope that you will enjoy my description of our sixty-second and newest national park, White Sands, which appears below and will file it away for a calmer and more normal time. For those of us with the travel bug, now is a good time to do some deep and thorough planning for our next trips.

Until then, stay healthy, safe and keep honing your skills in the digital darkroom.

With the recent (December 2019) elevation of White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico to full National Park status, it seems appropriate to recall an earlier visit to this wonderful place. Some changes have occurred here recently. A revised and updated version appears below.

Although the big state of New Mexico had just one lone national park within its borders (Carlsbad Caverns, which I wrote about in 2016), there is now a new national park that offers another opportunity for some terrific landscape images. At just a few miles from the comfortable town of Alamogordo, New Mexico, White Sands, which recently became America’s 62nd National Park, is an easy drive of only about three hours from Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Endless ripples in the shifting sands of White Sands National Park, New Mexico.
Endless ripples in the shifting sands of White Sands National Park, New Mexico.

White Sands is located in the Tularosa Basin, in the middle of the famous White Sands Missile Range. Because of its location within that facility, the dune field is closed to the public on days when a missile test is scheduled. Often entry may be suspended for only an hour or two. Check in advance to avoid disappointment. Even then, launch schedules can change, and they take priority over tourism (and even us photographers).

Few National Park Service units have names that are so very descriptive as White Sands National Park. The sand making up these terrific dunes is actually a granulated form of the mineral gypsum. It glistens sparkling white, especially in the bright New Mexico sunlight.

Hiking through the 148,000 acres of these semi-firm dunes is only slightly less strenuous than doing so in the more typical loose sand dunes found in several other NPS units. You might want to lighten your pack a bit and be prepared for a really good cardio workout.

As you traverse a small part of this enormous 275 square mile dune field, these rolling shapes seem to come at you in endless waves. Their undulating shapes and sensuously curving lines offer an endless variety of compositions as the play of light and shadow on the dunes is constantly changing with the angle of the sun and the movement of the clouds.

One addition to the glistening dunes is the desert foliage here, most notably the photogenic flowering soapstone yucca. An assortment of small rodents can also make for some interesting compositions. Even if the little creatures themselves are not immediately present, look for their footprints and distinctive tail prints, often left by the nocturnal animals and present in the early morning hours. This evidence can make for some amusing images. 

The pastel shades of dawn light in White Sands National Park, New Mexico.
The pastel shades of dawn light in White Sands National Park, New Mexico.

Both morning and evening light can be productive. I shoot both, but mostly favor the soft light of morning. This is a very popular place for families. On nice afternoons the national monument can be filled with families and kids who leave myriad footprints and snowboard impressions all over the place. Giving the night hours some time for winds to blow and smooth out some of these can help. Of course, too much wind can also cause blowing grains to damage your camera gear. Be careful; these grains can be the mortal enemies of delicate gear. Even if the wind smooths out the tracks, it is best to hike out a few hundred yards from the roads in search of the most untouched and cleanest looking forms, since most visitors tend not to stray too far from their cars.

The best photography at White Sands, as with any such dunes, is found when the sun is right at the horizon, both morning and evening. This provides the greatest degree of contrast on the glistening dunes and the shadows between the ripples. Once the sun is higher in the sky, that contrast evaporates quickly.

A good late-day sky offers the promise of some beautiful sunset light as well. The bright and often colorful evening sky often reflects its soft light onto the pure white dunes, turning them a beautiful array of soft pastels. Don’t miss it!

Brilliand sunset skies above White Sands National Park, New Mexico.
Brilliand sunset skies above White Sands National Park, New Mexico.

The park’s entry gate officially opens at 7:00 AM each day of the year. As photographers, we want to be in position and ready to shoot much earlier – before the very first rays of dawn crack the horizon. In most cases this might cause an insurmountable problem. However, here at White Sands National Park there is an easy solution. Enter early! What? Yup.

Unlike any other unit of the NPS of which I am aware, White Sands offers visitors the opportunity to enter early and stay late. Simply download an application from the park’s website about two weeks in advance, fill in the form and pay the fee of $50.00 per hour or part. Then arrive at the gate at the appointed hour and you’re in! This unique option has allowed me to have this entire park all to myself for about two hours.

White Sands has my very favorite national park visitor center. Not that I travel to national parks to admire the buildings, but this one is really exceptional. It is a charming building designed in the Pueblo style that was built under the aegis of the New Deal WPA program during the depths of the Great Depression.

If flying in, it’s a good idea to check for flights to both Albuquerque and El Paso, Texas.  Your base of Alamogordo, NM offers a fair selection of chain motels and restaurants. Even though you’ll be driving the unpaved gypsum tracks within the dunes, they are hard-packed and suitable for any standard passenger car.

Jerry Ginsberg is an award winning and widely published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 62 National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks.

His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition.  Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.

More of Ginsberg’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com or e mail him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com